"Have we got everything?" Xander asked, struggling with a cardboard box he was sure was filled with the heaviest tomes imaginable, said box of course neatly marked 'Books - study'. He grimaced at Buffy, equally struggling with similar boxes.
"Think so but let me go check again, ok?" Willow shouted as she ran down the stairs.
"Will-", Xander called out to the disappearing redhead, to no avail.
"I know, she's only checked everything 3 times," Buffy smirked. "Come on, let's just get the stuff into the van."
Willow looked around the small studio apartment, checking inside all the cupboards, the fridge and even behind the drapes. The apartment looked bigger now that all the furniture had been removed, the only remaining item was the cat basket with the cat sleeping soundly inside. She picked up the basket, gazed at the apple tree in the garden one last time, sighed a little sadly and closed the door behind her.
On the way out, she deposited the keys in the caretaker's box and an envelope written in her neat handwriting into her now former letterbox.
Buffy and Xander were leaning by the rental van, drinking water out of the bottles taken from Willow's fridge and furiously trying to keep cool. Dawn was skipping around, checking on the arrangements of the boxes in the van.
"Dawnster, please stop being so energetic, my eyeballs are getting tired watching you run around," Xander complained.
"Hey I have to make sure the boxes are loaded correctly," the teenager retorted good-naturedly.
"Yeah sure, and making sure you do as little heavy lifting as possible, I see through your evil scheme," Buffy interjected.
"Alright, everything's done. Time to go," Willow said as she joined her friends. "And guys, I really appreciate you coming by and helping out."
Amidst the "no problem's" the gang got into the van, Xander driving with Willow riding shotgun. The Summers sisters sat behind them.
"I can't believe you're moving out, we had some nice times here didn't we," Buffy reminisced as she adjusted her seatbelt. "Picnics in the garden, Scarr demon attack, not to mention plumbing adventures in the basement."
"Yeah I'll miss it too, but it's a little out of the way, you know, for work. Especially now I need to go into the office and show my face a lot more," Willow replied glumly.
"Oh the pitfalls of being a corporate bigwig, you have my utmost sympathies, not," Buffy said. "I wish I could afford to move into my own apartment as soon as I get my first job, then after just a year get a big promotion and move into an even bigger apartment."
"Buff, your house is bigger than both my apartments put together, why are you complaining? 'Sides you get good money running your classes," Willow grinned.
"But you don't have to share your income with an ex-vengeance demon who is a chronic penny pincher," Buffy replied back.
"Alright, this is where I step in, no talking bad about my wife, ok?" Xander interrupted the ribbing between his two best friends. "Will, lead the way to your new place."
Willow took a last look at the white stucco building, her home for the last year, and internally waved it goodbye.
Tara parked her car outside the brand new white building and smiled, a mixture of relief and trepidation. She was truly on her own two feet now.
She knocked at the door marked 'Caretaker' and at the muffled "Come in!" shouted from the other side, pushed open the door and entered the small office.
"Oh hi there, you moving in?" asked the small wiry man putting the finishing touches on several stainless steel letterboxes on his workbench.
"Yes, I'm in the basement apartment," she replied.
"Right, Miss-" he consulted a clipboard on the wall. "Maclay is it? You mind giving me your driver's license for verification?"
"Sure." She fished her license out and passed it to him.
"That's fine, here's your keys. I see you've already paid your deposit for them. Well, welcome," he smiled. "Do you need any help unloading?"
"N-n-no, thanks. I don't have a lot. I haven't bought a lot of my furniture yet, have to ration my paycheck," she smiled back as she collected the keys.
"I know the feeling. My wife's expecting our first and we're already seeing a big hike in our expenses," he said.
"Oh, congratulations. When's she due?" she asked politely.
"January. Hopefully the construction work on the street would have finished by then, don't want all that dust with a baby around," he replied.
"Well, don't let me disturb you any further, er-" she nodded toward the boxes he was working on.
"Oh God, where are my manners. I'm Paul," he said. "Yeah, I'll have these boxes put up by the morning. Can't have a new building without mailboxes right. Don't worry, you won't miss any mail."
"That's fine, I'm not expecting anything. Thanks again," she said as she bade her leave.
Over the next few days she heard other tenants gradually moving in as she settled in herself.
The first thing she did was to bless and protect her new home. She took 3 twigs of uncut rowan branches collected from a sacred circle in Scotland and tied them together using a red ribbon. She touched the talisman first to her forehead, then to her heart, then she kissed it. She carried it to all the rooms and repeated the blessing. Finally she walked backward through her front door and secured the branches above her door. To complete the spell she boiled water to make a cup of tea, swept thoroughly with a broom and burnt a scented candle at the center of the apartment for 3 days.
The next task she set herself was to set up her studio. Her drafting table and architect's chair were placed near the window on white sheets liberally splattered with dried paint, her adapted kitchen trolley that acted as storage unit placed next to the table, frames, canvases, brushes neatly in place.
She hung up a few paintings, the rest she stacked against the far wall.
Her only other furniture consisted of an inflatable mattress and a couple of rickety wooden shelf units. These took no time to assemble and then she was done.
She stepped back and looked around the studio apartment. She needed a table, some chairs, an armchair and may be more shelves. These would have to wait, but as the sun shone into her private sanctuary she could not prevent tears of happiness from forming, and she smiled the smile of the finally free.
"Home. My home."
She came back from grocery shopping with more food than was on her shopping list, it was never a good idea to shop on an empty stomach, she thought to herself.
She was trying to balance all the various bags in her arms and opening her letterbox to retrieve her mail. True to his promise Paul had put them up immediately but all she tended to get were circulars and bills.
She absentmindedly scattered the envelopes on her table when she went back to her apartment. The next hour or so was spent unpacking the groceries and making herself a late lunch.
As expected there was nothing interesting in her mail, until she came to a cream-colored envelope that was not stamped. It was addressed to "The Next Tenant at the Basement Apartment" in neat capitol letters and held a typed letter inside.
Dear Next Tenant,
Tara did not remember any paw prints on the kitchen windowsill and was a bit surprised at the mention of an apple tree. The construction crew had only just cleared the garden and she was contemplating what she wanted to plant, she had thought about apple trees and may be some rose bushes.
She glanced at the letter again and did a double-take when she noticed the date.
August 25th, 2004.